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Supercharging Virtual Teams

Leaders must think differently about trust, belonging and collaboration in the virtual world

Have you ever tried to run an electric car on petrol from your old car? Of course not – it’s obvious that it wouldn’t work. They might both be cars, but they use a different technology and need a different fuel to work. This analogy is really helpful when we think about teams.

Teams of the future are like electric cars. They’re designed to do the same thing as teams of the past (to achieve agreed goals efficiently, to innovate, to inspire…), but the vehicle is now more likely to be virtual (or hybrid) than it is face to face. We can’t keep using the old fuel; we can’t assume that the old ways of encouraging teamworking can be applied. We need to develop a new fuel for a new teamworking vehicle.

The importance of psychological safety

The fundamentals of great teamworking are pretty constant – words and labels might change over time, but generally high performing teams need a meaningful vision or purpose, strong relationships, clear roles, appropriate skills or resources and open dialogue. Recent research (such as Google’s ‘Project Aristotle’) suggests that underpinning this high performance is an environment where people feel psychologically safe – they are comfortable to take risks, admit mistakes and speak their minds. This is an environment of trust and cohesion. Accelerating a team’s journey to high performance has, historically, always involved face-to-face sessions and away days. You’ll focus on people getting to know each other and facilitating conversations about purpose, values and behaviours.

The COVID 19 Pandemic has called for a radical rethink. While each team will have a different starting place and priorities, below are some considerations I’ve found when working with teams in this new world of work.

PROACTIVE RELATIONSHIP BUILDING

Relationships need time and space to develop and they really matter – they are the glue that binds a team together. In the in-person world, there were lots of incidental interactions which helped to develop personal connections and rapport (the intimacy that is a cornerstone of trust and cohesion) but now they’re missing. We can easily spend several hours on a Zoom call with someone and not really know how they are.

We need to create dedicated team time for people to get to know each other so they feel safe to engage in open dialogue. I’ve done this with teams by asking each person to prepare a short ‘who am I’ introduction, sharing an object that means something to them and talking about their personal background, strengths, drives, motivations, hopes, fears, challenges and vulnerabilities. I’ve also used Aaron Dignan’s approach of sharing a ‘user manual to me’ – a summary of key skills, qualities, what you need help with and how others can get the best from you.

These activities work really well remotely, with everyone given time to speak and share. This intimacy can then be ‘topped up’ by different conversation starters at the beginning of each meeting – some of the questions from the study on 36 questions to create closeness are really helpful here. For example, “what would constitute a ‘perfect’ day for you?” and “what does friendship mean to you?”.

ONGOING TEAM LEARNING

In person, we quickly get a sense if something isn’t working, but we don’t have as many cues in the virtual world, so need to consciously make time for ongoing team check-in, review and learning. Team members need a forum to talk openly about what’s working for them, what’s not working and what changes they suggest. This approach drives shared accountability for the effective functioning of the team and is critical to success.

Each team will want to review different things. Common topics could include team purpose, priorities, information sharing, individual and collective expectations, team roles, behaviours, frameworks for decision-making, airing disagreements, feedback, expectations of each other… what needs to be working well for this team to perform at its best.

A shared review can lead to some agreed changes to try out and these changes can themselves then be reviewed. These conversations can be difficult to find time for – there’s such a drive to get on with the task, but without getting these things right, there’s likely to be a lot of wasted effort, rework and frustration. One team I work with has agreed a list of things to review and they explore two topics from the list each month – but anyone can bring a ‘wildcard’ if they have something urgent to bring to the table.

INJECTING CREATIVITY

Working remotely can result in staring at the same four walls, each day packed full of video calls with little respite. This can trigger set patterns of behaviour and thinking, making it harder to create energy and excitement around team membership. It can therefore be helpful to actively mix things up with your team, creating something fun and unexpected, giving people something different to talk about and engage with.

For example, if you want to have a creative conversation, consider encouraging people to set themselves up in a different room. Create a group chat for people to share photos and informal team communication on what they’re working on, what they’re having for lunch, etc. Why not set time in your team meetings for some paired work that can be done by phone as a ‘walk and talk’? You could organise an evening activity, a virtual escape room, a cooking activity or a physical team challenge. Adding variety can help you to reignite the buzz, to create some shared experiences that help to foster a sense of belonging and commitment.

SUPERCHARGED COMMUNICATION

Lots of effort was put into helping teams feel connected at the start of the pandemic, but as new patterns of remote and office working are emerging, we need to think carefully about our communication. As well as formal communication, we must be mindful of the messages that we are sending and receiving, consciously and subconsciously. Start by asking how people currently feel about communication. At a general level, what is working and what isn’t? How open and transparent do they feel the communication is? What suggestions do they have for improvements? How can everyone feel included, whether working in the office or remotely? On a more personal level, how clear are they on the expectations of them, and how listened to, supported and informed do they feel about the things that affect them day to day?

Consider the messaging of your behaviours too. What are you communicating subconsciously about your expectations? If you always reply immediately to emails, what does that say about people needing to be ‘always on’? If you are in back-to-back meetings, or scheduling calls into the evening, what is the message, and what is the risk for the engagement of your team? Role modelling positive behaviours such as regular breaks helps everyone to feel OK about taking them – and regular breaks are linked to higher productivity. One leader I know has an open diary that shows his one hour for lunch each day, titled ‘lunch and walk’. What could you do to showcase positive behaviours?

Moving ahead

In some ways, the fuel for virtual teams is not so different; however, we need to be more planned and deliberate. Just like an electric car driver, we need to consider in advance how, when and where we can charge up the team – and allow time to do this.

Written by Dr Maggi Evans, psychologist, author, talent strategist and coach

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